Study Guide

David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace Biography

Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

David Foster Wallace grew up in Urbana, Illinois, the son of a philosophy professor and community college English teacher. He was a talented, competitive tennis player whose gifts for the game included oversweating in order to keep well ventilated and the ability to ascertain the differential complications between the angles of the court and the unpredictable midwestern winds that often seized balls while in play. Wallace majored in philosophy at Amherst College. His professors believed he would become an important philosopher, but after taking time off to drive a school bus, he completed his senior thesis as a creative piece, which would soon be picked up as a rough draft of his first novel, The Broom of the System. From there, he headed west for Arizona State University’s creative writing program.

The Broom of the System earned for Wallace a Whiting Writer’s Award and gained the twenty-five-year-old some cult and critical notoriety. The novel’s story line is built on phone messages, literary magazine submissions, and psychotherapy sessions. Readers come to realize that the central character’s search for her missing grandmother is actually a pursuit of her own identity. Wallace uses stylized wordplay to represent the notion that something’s value is nothing more or less than its function, a concept fostered by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s idea that language is a means by which reality is constructed. His postmodernist plot fragmentation, need to express philosophical ideas through fiction, and old-fashioned concern for character development are reflective of Wallace’s wide range of early influences, which include Donald Barthelme and Tobias Wolff. They are also staple concepts that persist throughout Wallace’s work.

His second book, Girl with Curious Hair, is a short-story collection assimilating American history, pop culture, and its icons with central characters that embody certain ideologies. A slacker takes an internship with Lyndon Johnson in “Lyndon,” while “Little Expressionless Animals” deals with the plans of the producers of Jeopardy!, the television game show, to eject a long-running champion because of her sexual orientation. This focus on pop culture is carried over into Wallace’s nonfiction with Signifying Rappers, a book cowritten with Mark Costello, wherein two white males use an obscure language to discuss the violence, misogyny, and arrogance often associated with hip-hop. Throughout his...

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David Foster Wallace Biography (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Born in Ithaca, New York, in 1962, David Foster Wallace was raised in central Illinois, where his father was a philosophy professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana and his mother was a professor of English. Growing up among the geometric grids of rural Illinois farmland, Wallace developed an acute sense of angles, which, he argues in the essay “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” enabled him to become a successful player on the competitive junior tennis tournament circuit between the ages of twelve and fifteen. Wallace attended his father’s alma mater, Amherst College, where he majored in both philosophy, specializing in math and logic, and English. At Amherst he became acquainted with his long-term friend Mark Costello, who would go on to become an attorney and also a novelist.

The anxiety attacks and problems with depression that first manifested in Wallace’s teens recurred while he was in college, and he was briefly hospitalized; after returning to school he wrote part of The Broom of the System for his senior thesis project before graduating summa cum laude in 1985. After graduation, he completed the novel and received an M.F.A. degree in 1987 from the University of Arizona. Wallace’s early success contributed toward some self-destructive experimentation in his personal life, which a few reviewers speculate might have provided some of the material on addiction that appears in Infinite Jest. He was briefly institutionalized at McLean Psychiatric Hospital, an institution affiliated with Harvard University. He began using the antidepressant Nardil and managed to emerge from his downward spiral around 1990. During this time he met novelist Jonathan Franzen, who became one of his best friends.

Wallace served as an editor for the Review of Contemporary Fiction and as a contributing editor for Harper’s; from 1993 to 2002 he was an English professor at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois. In 2002 he became the Roy E. Disney Distinguished Professor in Creative Writing at Pomona College in Claremont, California. Shortly after moving to Claremont, he met painter Karen Green, and they married on December 27, 2004. After serious onslaughts of depression in the first part of 2008, Wallace committed suicide on September 12, 2008, hanging himself at his home in Claremont.